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The Nether World

The Nether World

George Gissing

Update: 2020-04-22


  • In the troubled twilight of a March evening ten years ago, an old man, whos_quipment and bearing suggested that he was fresh from travel, walked slowl_cross Clerkenwell Green, and by the graveyard of St. James's Church stood fo_ moment looking about him. His age could not be far from seventy, but, despite the stoop of his shoulders, he gave little sign of failing under th_urden of years; his sober step indicated gravity of character rather tha_odily feebleness, and his grasp of a stout stick was not such as bespeak_eed of support. His attire was neither that of a man of leisure, nor of th_ind usually worn by English mechanics. Instead of coat and waistcoat, he wor_ garment something like a fisherman's guernsey, and over this a coarse shor_loak, picturesque in appearance as it was buffeted by the wind. His trouser_ere of moleskin; his boots reached almost to his knees; for head-covering h_ad the cheapest kind of undyed felt, its form exactly that of the ol_etasus. To say that his aspect was Venerable would serve to present him in _easure, yet would not be wholly accurate, for there was too much of pas_truggle and present anxiety in his countenance to permit full expression o_he natural dignity of the features. It was a fine face and might have bee_istinctly noble, but circumstances had marred the purpose of Nature; yo_erceived that his cares had too often been of the kind which are created b_gnoble necessities, such as leave to most men of his standing a bare humanit_f visage. He had long thin white hair; his beard was short and merel_rizzled. In his left hand he carried a bundle, which probably containe_lothing.
  • The burial-ground by which he had paused was as little restful to the eye a_re most of those discoverable in the byways of London. The small trees tha_rew about it shivered in their leaflessness; the rank grass was wan under th_ailing day; most of the stones leaned this way or that, emblems of neglect (they were very white at the top, and darkened downwards till the damp soi_ade them black), and certain cats and dogs were prowling or sporting amon_he graves. At this corner the east wind blew with malice such as it neve_uts forth save where there are poorly clad people to be pierced; it swep_efore it thin clouds of unsavoury dust, mingled with the light refuse of th_treets. Above the shapeless houses night was signalling a murky approach; th_ky—if sky it could be called—gave threatening of sleet, perchance of snow.
  • And on every side was the rumble of traffic, the voiceful evidence of toil an_f poverty; hawkers were crying their goods; the inevitable organ was clangin_efore a public-house hard by; the crumpet-man was hastening along, wit_onotonous ringing of his bell and hoarse rhythmic wail.
  • The old man had fixed his eyes half absently on the inscription of _ravestone near him; a lean cat springing out between the iron railings seeme_o recall his attention, and with a slight sigh he went forward along th_arrow street which is called St. James's Walk. In a few minutes he ha_eached the end of it, and found himself facing a high grey-brick wall, wherein, at this point, was an arched gateway closed with black doors. H_ooked at the gateway, then fixed his gaze on something that stood jus_bove—something which the dusk half concealed, and by so doing made mor_mpressive. It was the sculptured counterfeit of a human face, that of a ma_istraught with agony. The eyes stared wildly from their sockets, the hai_truggled in maniac disorder, the forehead was wrung with torture, the cheek_unken, the throat fearsomely wasted, and from the wide lips there seemed t_e issuing a horrible cry. Above this hideous effigy was carved the legend:
  • Something more than pain came to the old man's face as he looked and pondered; his lips trembled like those of one in anger, and his eyes had a ster_esentful gleaming. He walked on a few paces, then suddenly stopped where _oman was standing at an open door.
  • 'I ask your pardon,' he said, addressing her with the courtesy which owe_othing to refined intercourse, 'but do you by chance know anyone of the nam_f Snowdon hereabouts?'
  • The woman replied with a brief negative; she smiled at the appearance of th_uestioner, and, with the vulgar instinct, looked about for someone to shar_er amusement.
  • 'Better inquire at the 'ouse at the corner,' she added, as the man was movin_way. 'They've been here a long time, I b'lieve.'
  • He accepted her advice. But the people at the public-house could not aid hi_earch. He thanked them, paused for a moment with his eyes down, then agai_ighed slightly and went forth into the gathering gloom.
  • Less than five minutes later there ran into the same house of refreshment _ittle slight girl, perhaps thirteen years old; she carried a jug, and at th_ar asked for 'a pint of old six.' The barman, whilst drawing the ale, calle_ut to a man who had entered immediately after the child:
  • 'Don't know nobody called Snowdon about 'ere, do you, Mr. Squibbs?'
  • The individual addressed was very dirty, very sleepy, and seemingly at odd_ith mankind. He replied contemptuously with a word which, in phoneti_endering may perhaps be spelt 'Nay-oo.'
  • But the little girl was looking eagerly from one man to the other; what ha_een said appeared to excite keen interest in her. She forgot all about th_eer-jug that was waiting, and, after a brief but obvious struggle wit_imidity, said in an uncertain voice:
  • 'Has somebody been asking for that name, sir?'
  • 'Yes, they have,' the barman answered, in surprise. 'Why?'
  • My name's Snowdon, sir—Jane Snowdon.'
  • She reddened over all her face as soon as she had given utterance to th_mpulsive words. The barman was regarding her with a sort of semi-interest, and Mr. Squibbs also had fixed his bleary (or beery) eyes upon her. Neithe_ould have admitted an active interest in so pale and thin and wretchedly-cla_ little mortal. Her hair hung loose, and had no covering; it was hair of n_articular colour, and seemed to have been for a long time utterly untended; the wind, on her run hither, had tossed it into much disorder. Signs ther_ere of some kind of clothing beneath the short, dirty, worn dress, but it wa_vidently of the scantiest description. The freely exposed neck was very thin, but, like the outline of her face, spoke less of a feeble habit of body tha_f the present pinch of sheer hunger. She did not, indeed, look like one o_hose children who are born in disease and starvation, and put to nurse upo_he pavement; her limbs were shapely enough, her back was straight, she ha_eatures that were not merely human, but girl-like, and her look had in it th_ight of an intelligence generally sought for in vain among the children o_he street. The blush and the way in which she hung her head were likewis_okens of a nature endowed with ample sensitiveness.
  • 'Oh, your name's Jane Snowdon, is it?' said the barman. 'Well, you're jus_hree minutes an' three-quarters too late. P'r'aps it's a fortune a-runnin'
  • after you. He was a rum old party as inquired. Never mind; it's all in a life.
  • There's fortunes lost every week by a good deal less than three minutes whe_t's 'orses—eh, Mr. Squibbs?'
  • Mr. Squibbs swore with emphasis.
  • The little girl took her jug of beer and was turning away.
  • 'Hollo!' cried the barman. 'Where's the money, Jane?—if  _you_  don't mind.'
  • She turned again in increased confusion, and laid coppers on the counter.
  • Thereupon the man asked her where she lived; she named a house in Clerkenwel_lose, near at hand.
  • 'Father live there?'
  • She shook her head.
  • 'Mother?'
  • 'I haven't got one, sir.'
  • 'Who is it as you live with, then?'
  • 'Mrs. Peckover, sir.'
  • 'Well, as I was sayin', he was a queer old joker as arsted for the name o_nowdon. Shouldn't wonder if you see him goin' round.'
  • And he added a pretty full description of this old man, to which the gir_istened closely. Then she went thoughtfully—a little sadly—on her way.
  • In the street, all but dark by this time, she cast anxious glances onwards an_ehind, but no old man in an odd hat and cloak and with white hair wa_iscoverable. Linger she might not. She reached a house of which the front- door stood open; it looked black and cavernous within; but she advanced wit_he step of familiarity, and went downstairs to a front-kitchen. Through th_alf-open door came a strong odour and a hissing sound, plainly due to th_rying of sausages. Before Jane could enter she was greeted sharply in a voic_hich was young and that of a female, but had no other quality o_raciousness.
  • 'You've taken your time, my lady! All right! just wait till I've 'ad my tea, that's all! Me an' you'll settle accounts to-night, see if we don't. Mothe_old me as she owed you a lickin', and I'll pay it off, with a little on m_wn account too. Only wait till I've 'ad my tea, that's all. What are yo_tandin' there for, like a fool? Bring that beer 'ere, an' let's see 'ow muc_ou've drank.'
  • 'I haven't put my lips near it, miss; indeed I haven't,' pleaded the child, whose face of dread proved both natural timidity and the constant apprehensio_f ill-usage.
  • 'Little liar! that's what you always was, an' always will be.— Take that!'
  • The speaker was a girl of sixteen, tall, rather bony, rudely handsome; th_and with which she struck was large and coarse-fibred, the muscles tha_mpelled it vigorous. Her dress was that of a work-girl, unsubstantial, ill- fitting, but of ambitious cut; her hair was very abundant, and rose upon th_ack of her head in thick coils, an elegant fringe depending in front. Th_ire had made her face scarlet, and in the lamplight her large eyes glistene_ith many joys.
  • First and foremost, Miss Clementina Peckover rejoiced because she had lef_ork much earlier than usual, and was about to enjoy what she would hav_escribed as a 'blow out.' Secondly, she rejoiced because her mother, th_andlady of the house, was absent for the night, and consequently she woul_xercise sole authority over the domestic slave, Jane Snowdon—that is to say, would indulge to the uttermost her instincts of cruelty in tormenting _efenceless creature. Finally—a cause of happiness antecedent to the others, but less vivid in her mind at this moment—in the next room lay awaiting buria_he corpse of Mrs. Peckover's mother-in-law, whose death six days ago ha_lunged mother and daughter into profound delight, partly because they wer_elieved at length from making a pretence of humanity to a bed-ridden ol_oman, partly owing to the fact that the deceased had left behind her a sum o_eventy-five pounds, exclusive of moneys due from a burial-club.
  • 'Ah!' exclaimed Miss Peckover (who was affectionately known to her intimate_s 'Clem'), as she watched Jane stagger back from the blow, and hide her fac_n silent endurance of pain. 'That's just a morsel to stay your appetite, m_ady! You didn't expect me back 'ome at this time, did you? You thought as yo_as goin' to have the kitchen to yourself when mother went. Ha ha! h_o!—These sausages is done; now you clean that fryin'-pan; and if I can find _peck of dirt in it as big as 'arlf a farden, I'll take you by the 'air of the
  • 'ed an' clean it with your face,  _that's_  what I'll do I Understand? Oh, _ean what I say, my lady! Me an' you's a-goin' to spend a evenin' together, there's no two ways about that. He ho! he he!'
  • The frankness of Clem's brutality went far towards redeeming her character.
  • The exquisite satisfaction with which she viewed Jane's present misery, th_road joviality with which she gloated over the prospect of cruelties shortl_o be inflicted, put her at once on a par with the noble savage running wil_n woods. Civilisation could bring no charge against this young woman; it an_he had no common criterion. Who knows but this lust of hers for sanguinar_omination was the natural enough issue of the brutalising serfdom of he_redecessors in the family line of the Peckovers? A thrall suddenly endowe_ith authority will assuredly make bitter work for the luckless creature i_he next degree of thraldom.
  • A cloth was already spread across one end of the deal table, with such othe_reparations for a meal as Clem deemed adequate. The sausages—five i_umber—she had emptied from the frying-pan directly on to her plate, and wit_hem all the black rich juice that had exuded in the process o_ooking—particularly rich, owing to its having several times caught fire an_lazed triumphantly. On sitting down and squaring her comely frame to work, the first thing Clem did was to take a long draught out of the beer-jug; refreshed thus, she poured the remaining liquor into a glass. Ready at han_as mustard, made in a tea-cup; having taken a certain quantity of thi_ondiment on to her knife, she proceeded to spread each sausage with it fro_nd to end, patting them in a friendly way as she finished the operation. Nex_he sprinkled them with pepper, and after that she constructed a little pil_f salt on the side of the plate, using her fingers to convey it from th_alt-cellar. It remained to cut a thick slice of bread—she held the loa_ressed to her bosom whilst doing this—and to crush it down well into th_lack grease beside the sausages; then Clem was ready to begin.
  • For five minutes she fed heartily, showing really remarkable skill i_onveying pieces of sausage to her mouth by means of the knife alone. Findin_t necessary to breathe at last, she looked round at Jane. The hand-maiden wa_n her knees near the fire, scrubbing very hard at the pan with successiv_ieces of newspaper. It was a sight to increase the gusto of Clem's meal, bu_f a sudden there came into the girl's mind a yet more delightful thought. _ave mentioned that in the back-kitchen lay the body of a dead woman; it wa_lready encoffined, and waited for interment on the morrow, when Mrs. Peckove_ould arrive with a certain female relative from St. Albans. Now the proximit_f this corpse was a ceaseless occasion of dread and misery to Jane Snowdon; the poor child had each night to make up a bed for herself in this front-room, dragging together a little heap of rags when mother and daughter were gone u_o their chamber, and since the old woman's death it was much if Jane ha_njoyed one hour of unbroken sleep. She endeavoured to hide these feelings, but Clem, with her Bed Indian scent, divined them accurately enough. She hi_pon a good idea.
  • 'Go into the next room,' she commanded suddenly, 'and fetch the matches off o_he mantel-piece. I shall want to go upstairs presently, to see if you'v_crubbed the bed-room well.'
  • Jane was blanched; but she rose from her knees at once, and reached _andlestick from above the fireplace.
  • 'What's that for?' shouted Clem, with her mouth full. 'You've no need of _ight to find the mantel-piece. If you're not off—'
  • Jane hastened from the kitchen. Clem yelled to her to close the door, and sh_ad no choice but to obey. In the dark passage outside there was darkness tha_ight be felt. The child all but fainted with the sickness of horror as sh_urned the handle of the other door and began to grope her way. She kne_xactly where the coffin was; she knew that to avoid touching it in th_iminutive room was all but impossible. And touch it she did. Her anguis_ttered itself, not in a mere sound of terror, but in a broken word or two o_ prayer she knew by heart, including a name which sounded like a char_gainst evil. She had reached the mantel-piece; oh, she could not, could no_ind the matches I Yes, at last her hand closed on them. A blind rush, and sh_as out again in the passage. She re-entered the front-kitchen with limbs tha_uivered, with the sound of dreadful voices ringing about her, and blanknes_efore her eyes.
  • Clem laughed heartily, then finished her beer in a long, enjoyable pull. He_ppetite was satisfied; the last trace of oleaginous matter had disappeare_rom her plate, and now she toyed with little pieces of bread lightly dippe_nto the mustard-pot. These  _bonnes bouches_  put her into excellent humour; presently she crossed her arms and leaned back. There was no denying that Cle_as handsome; at sixteen she had all her charms in apparent maturity, and the_ere of the coarsely magnificent order. Her forehead was low and of grea_idth; her nose was well shapen, and had large sensual apertures; her crue_ips may be seen on certain fine antique busts; the neck that supported he_eavy head was splendidly rounded. In laughing, she became a model for a_rtist, an embodiment of fierce life independent of morality. Her health wa_robably less sound than it seemed to be; one would have compared her, not t_ome piece of exuberant normal vegetation, but rather to a rank, evilly- fostered growth. The putrid soil of that nether world yields other form_esides the obviously blighted and sapless.
  • 'Have you done any work for Mrs. Hewett to-day?' she asked of her victim, after sufficiently savouring the spectacle of terror.
  • 'Yes, miss; I did the front-room fireplace, an' fetched fourteen of coals, an'
  • washed out a few things.'
  • 'What did she give you?'
  • 'A penny, miss. I gave it to Mrs. Peckover before she went.'
  • 'Oh, you did? Well, look 'ere; you'll just remember in future that all you ge_rom the lodgers belongs to me, an' not to mother. It's a new arrangement, understand. An' if you dare to give up a 'apenny to mother, I'll lick you til_ou're nothin' but a bag o' bones. Understand?'
  • Having on the spur of the moment devised this ingenious difficulty for th_hild, who was sure to suffer in many ways from such a conflict o_uthorities, Clem began to consider how she should spend her evening. Afte_ll, Jane was too poor-spirited a victim to afford long entertainment. Cle_ould have liked dealing with some one who showed fight—some one with whom sh_ould try savage issue in real tooth-and-claw conflict. She had in mind _eally exquisite piece of cruelty, but it was a joy necessarily postponed to _ate hour of the night. In the meantime, it would perhaps be as well to take _troll, with a view of meeting a few friends as they came away from the work- rooms. She was pondering the invention of some long and hard task to b_xecuted by Jane in her absence, when a knocking at the house-door made itsel_eard. Clem at once went up to see who the visitor was.
  • A woman in a long cloak and a showy bonnet stood on the step, protectin_erself with an umbrella from the bitter sleet which the wind was now drivin_hrough the darkness. She said that she wished to see Mrs. Hewett.
  • 'Second-floor front,' replied Clem in the offhand, impertinent tone wherewit_he always signified to strangers her position in the house.
  • The visitor regarded her with a look of lofty contempt, and, havin_eliberately closed her umbrella, advanced towards the stairs. Clem drew int_he back regions for a few moments, but as soon as she heard the closing of _oor in the upper part of the house, she too ascended, going on tip-toe, wit_ noiselessness which indicated another side of her character. Having reache_he room which the visitor had entered, she brought her ear close to th_eyhole, and remained in that attitude for a long time—nearly twenty minutes, in fact. Her sudden and swift return to the foot of the stairs was followed b_he descent of the woman in the showy bonnet.
  • 'Miss Peckover I' cried the latter when she had reached the foot of th_tairs.
  • 'Well, what is it?' asked Clem, seeming to come up from the kitchen.
  • 'Will you 'ave the goodness to go an' speak to Mrs. Hewett for a hinstant?'
  • said the woman, with much affectation of refined speech.
  • 'All right! I will just now, if I've time.'
  • The visitor tossed her head and departed, whereupon Clem at once ran upstairs.
  • In five minutes she was back in the kitchen.
  • 'See 'ere,' she addressed Jane. 'You know where Mr. Kirkwood works in St.
  • John's Square? You've been before now. Well, you're to go an' wait at the doo_ill he comes out, and then you're to tell him to come to Mrs. Hewett a_unst. Understand?—Why ain't these tea-things all cleared away? All right Wai_ill you come back, that's all. Now be off, before I skin you alive!'
  • On the floor in a corner of the kitchen lay something that had once been _irl's hat. This Jane at once snatched up and put on her head. Without othe_overing, She ran forth upon her errand.